The future of Donald Trump’s presidency could hinge on what happens with the investigations into Russian interference with the 2016 election that are moving forward in the executive branch and in Congress.
And now that the dust has settled from former FBI Director James Comey’s dramatic congressional testimony last week, you might be asking, what’s next?
First off: We are not even close to Trump being impeached, so don’t hold your breath waiting for it. That politically charged process isn’t close to getting started for Trump, let alone actually happening.
Instead, there are two major investigations, and several minor ones, that are moving forward in the wake of Comey’s testimony. Overall, these investigations are looking into whether Trump associates had any role in Russian interference in 2016 — particularly hackings — and will also examine other potential crimes that come to their attention during their inquiries.
So far, there remains no solid public evidence that Trump or his associates coordinated with the Russian hacking efforts, or that any of the more speculative scenarios about hidden scandalous connections between the president and Russia are true.
However, several Trump associates could be in legal jeopardy for a variety of different reasons — including former campaign manager Paul Manafort for his finances, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn for making false statements and for failing to disclose payments from foreign entities. No charges have been filed against anyone yet.
Finally, Comey’s testimony and the circumstances around his firing are scandalous in and of themselves, suggesting that the president has little respect for the independence of law enforcement agencies. The former FBI director’s most damning allegation was that President Trump encouraged him to drop an investigation into Flynn. Plus, the president himself has said that the Russia investigation was on his mind when firing Comey.
For now, however, the revelations so far haven’t been sufficient to spur the political system toward an impeachment effort or to result in any charges toward Trump associates. So we are still in the investigatory phase of this scandal, and what happens next depends on what the major investigations find.
A brief guide to the two big investigations moving forward
1) Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s DOJ/FBI investigation: This is the big one — the most important and potentially the most threatening investigation into Trump associates, focusing on counterintelligence and potential criminal behavior.
The FBI opened this investigation into Russian interference in the US election process back in July 2016, but then-Director James Comey confirmed this March that it included a serious look at some people close to Donald Trump. The FBI, Comey testified, was “investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”
Since mid-May 2017, this investigation has been headed by Robert Mueller, a widely respected former FBI director who served for over a decade under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the probe back in March, and as a result of the controversy of James Comey’s firing in May, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was pressured to put a special counsel in charge. In doing so, he asked Mueller to return to government from private practice, and take over the investigation as special counsel.
Due to those Justice Department actions, Mueller would appear to have a free hand to investigate and eventually to file charges if he feels they are merited. But it remains possible for Trump to have Mueller fired, though that would cause a massive political uproar sure to dwarf what we saw over Comey.
Though Russian interference in the US election process is still at the center of this investigation, a whole host of other matters could come under Mueller’s purview — from the question of whether Trump committed obstruction of justice, to criminal charges against Trump associates on matters that have nothing to do with Russia.
Mueller’s probe is focused on criminality and will, at some point, culminate in either the decision to file charges against some person or people, or the decision not to. Past probes of this nature, like the one into the Watergate break-ins, have often involved charging low-level aides with crimes and getting them to flip on their superiors with plea deals.
Of course, Mueller could also conclude that he doesn’t have sufficient evidence of wrongdoing to file charges against anyone. And if he does, it’s unclear how loquacious he’ll be about what he found — his job, after all, is investigating criminality, not disclosing what he finds to the public.
In any case, don’t wait on the edge of your seat for him to wrap up. Investigations like these often take years.
2) The Senate Intelligence Committee investigation: Though several congressional committees and subcommittees are interested in investigating various parts of Russian interference and potential presidential wrongdoing, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s is generally viewed as the least partisan and most credible.
Led by Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), the committee’s mission will differ somewhat from Mueller’s. Since it’s a panel of senators and congressional aides, rather than a federal law enforcement body, this investigation is obviously less well-equipped to investigate criminal wrongdoing. Instead, the committee’s mission will instead be more focused on public disclosure, in an effort to get to the bottom of the story of Russian efforts related to the 2016 election and tell that story. And they will be interested in anything they see as wrongdoing, whether it results in criminal charges for those involved or not.
The committee will do this through hearings featuring sworn testimony (both public hearings and private ones involving classified information), and perhaps eventually with the assembly and public release of a report summing up what they’ve found. If the committee finds what they think is evidence of criminal wrongdoing, they will let Mueller’s team know. But either way, Burr and Warner have signaled that their goal is to understand just what, exactly, happened, with an eye toward averting Russian electoral interference in the future.
The future of Trump’s presidency depends on these four questions
As the investigations proceed, the big question will naturally be what they can manage to find — and whether Trump can continue to hold onto his political support from most Republicans. So here are the four big questions going forward which have the potential to shake up the political status quo.
1) What will the investigations find about Russia and Trump associates related to the 2016 election?
US intelligence agencies have said that Russia launched a multifaceted effort to interfere with last year’s presidential campaign, ranging from hacking and leaking emails from the DNC and top Democratic officials, to attempted cyberintrusions of voter systems (though there is said to be zero indication these changed any votes).
So, were Trump associates communicating with or coordinating with Russian actors regarding these hacks in any way? Was there any sort of secret arrangement between the Trump team and Russians, involving money, policy promises, or even blackmail?
From what we know now, it remains entirely possible that the Russian government’s actions were taken without any involvement from the Trump team at all. But if investigators find evidence that there was coordination, it would be the biggest political scandal in decades. (Though whether it would lead to criminal charges depends on the specifics of what happened.)
2) What will the investigations find related to obstruction of justice since President Trump has been in office?
The president’s firing of FBI Director James Comey and Comey’s subsequent testimony about what he saw as a troubling pattern of the president refusing to respect the FBI’s independence, has now opened up a new front for congressional investigators and perhaps for Mueller’s team as well.
That is: Has president Trump tried to obstruct justice, to protect his associates or himself from criminal investigations?
Comey has testified that Trump cleared the room of advisers after a White House briefing in February and told him, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” (Trump has denied saying this.) The former FBI director says that he took this as a presidential directive to drop the investigation into Flynn for making false statements about his contacts with the Russian ambassador, but that he didn’t carry it out.
Comey has also testified that Trump asked for his “loyalty” (Trump denies this), and that the president called him with complaints about the Russia investigation, though he never asked that it be shut down. On May 9, Comey was suddenly fired, with the administration offering remarkably unconvincing explanations about why. Not long afterward, the president told NBC’s Lester Holt that his annoyance with Comey’s handling of the Russia investigation was on his mind when he decided to fire him.
So, was Comey’s firing an effort to kill the Russia probe? Is the report that Trump also asked Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to get Comey to back off accurate? Have the president and his top aides taken any other actions to interfere with investigations into the Russia matter or into Trump’s associates? Will they take such actions in the future? And what evidence exists on these topics?
3) Will the investigations turn up evidence of any other criminality, unrelated to the above topics?
Now, even if no “smoking gun” evidence emerges regarding coordination with Russia or obstruction of justice, that might not be an end to Trump associates’ political and legal woes.
It’s in fact commonly been the case that, once investigators compel politicians or political aides to give sworn statements, they get nailed for misstating the facts on something or other. Investigations of scandals like the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity and the Iran-Contra arms sales have culminated in perjury and obstruction of justice charges for White House officials.
It’s also common for investigations like these to sprawl. As Comey recently testified, “in any complex investigation, when you start turning over rocks, sometimes you find things that are unrelated to the primary investigation, that are criminal in nature.”
For instance, what started off as a probe into a land deal Bill and Hillary Clinton made in 1978 (Whitewater) eventually went very far afield indeed, as independent counsel Kenneth Starr began investigating whether President Clinton had perjured himself in a deposition for a sexual harassment lawsuit by denying his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Clinton was, of course, eventually impeached over this (but acquitted).
So it’s entirely possible that an investigation that began about Russian interference could end up with charges filed about, say, financial crimes from people under investigative scrutiny. Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn are both reportedly under investigation regarding their finances.
But what about impeachment?
There is a general bipartisan consensus among national politicians that it’s too early to start an impeachment effort.
The election, after all, wasn’t too long ago. The investigations are still in relatively early stages. Though a few stray Democrats in Congress have expressed support for impeachment (and many of the party’s voters have in polls), the vast majority of both Democratic and Republican politicians have shied away from doing so so far.
I’ve written a longer explainer on impeachment, but the most important thing to know is that while it looks and feels a whole lot like a legal or judicial process, in practice it is dominated by politics from start to finish. Rather than being run by any courts, impeachment and any ensuing presidential trial are carried out by the House of Representatives and the Senate, which are partisan bodies.
It is true that if a sitting president of the United States stood in the middle of Fifth Avenue, shot a random person in broad daylight, and was caught with a smoking gun, it’s probably a safe bet that Congress would put partisanship aside and vote to impeach him, convict him, and remove him from office for high crimes. (Probably.)
But most political scandals are not so indisputable, damning, and well-documented. And on any matter where there is some sort of plausible deniability for the president, his political allies will have very strong incentive to give him the benefit of the doubt, even if it means twisting themselves into knots.
Overall, the necessary condition for any impeachment effort to have a chance of succeeding and removing Trump from office is bipartisan participation.
Republicans will control the House until at least 2019, and even if Democrats retake the chamber in the midterm elections, the threshold for convicting Trump in the Senate is so high — 67 senators must vote to do it — that it’s essentially impossible for Democrats to reach without a good deal of Republican help.
So if extremely damning evidence of some very serious presidential crime emerges, and proves sufficient to finally turn a very large chunk of the president’s party openly against him, that is when impeachment and conviction becomes a real possibility. But if the topic remains partisan, nothing will come of it.